By Joan Vennochi
A terrible possibility is dawning on the daily commuter. The Big Dig improved the look of Boston’s highway system. It will not improve the drive into Boston.
This conclusion is unrelated to snow removal and pothole patrols, which are blamed for recent horrendous tie-ups. Even after the snow melts and the potholes are repaired, the daily commuting grind won’t be less onerous, according to Fred Salvucci, the former state transportation chief who championed the Big Dig. He says people forget the second half of what he championed: expanded public transit.
“We always knew that this thing would create a very brief improvement and things would recongest if we did not improve public transportation,” says Salvucci. Computer-generated predictions of improved traffic flow assumed “that transit improvements on the books would in fact get built in the timeframe talked about,” he says.
The public transit improvements on the books did not proceed according to plan, which is why the Conservation Law Foundation is taking the first steps toward suing the state to force it to live up to public transit commitments made two decades ago when seeking approval for the massive highway project. In that case, the $15 billion spent on this project is comparable to an extreme makeover that turns an ugly duckling into a beautiful swan, but does nothing to unclog the patient’s arteries. In other words, the Zakim Bridge is lovely, and there will be plenty of opportunity to contemplate its loveliness on the way into work.
Because the public transit component never received as much attention as the road project, average commuters are confused about exactly what the Big Dig is supposed to accomplish.
The trip in and out of Logan Airport is faster, people agree. But as for the overall commute, particularly from the north, “It’s getting worse,” offers state Representative Harriett L. Stanley, whose perspective was colored by a just-completed commute Wednesday. She left home at 7:15 a.m. and arrived in Boston two hours later. Stanley, whose district covers parts of Georgetown, Groveland, Haverhill, and the towns of Merrimac, Newbury, Rowley, and West Newbury, says constituents “are wild about” the traffic situation. In this case, wild means unhappy.
Matthew Amorello, beleaguered chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, disputes all pessimistic predictions. As evidence, he cites his commute from Wenham since additional lanes opened on the Leverett Connector. This is his route: Route 1A to Route 128 to Route 1 south to the Tobin Bridge, through the City Square tunnel, around the Leverett Connector to Storrow Drive, then off at Beacon Street on his way to 10 Park Plaza.
If he leaves his home at 6:30 a.m., Amorello says he arrives in Boston by 7:15 a.m. That, he contends, is at least 20 minutes quicker than before, and he also insists it happens without flashing lights or a State Police escort.
He suggests that people who see no improvement in their commute, or perceive a worsening commute, may be stuck in old driving patterns and unaware of new options into and out of Boston, such as the Ted Williams Tunnel. The Big Dig is supposed to redistribute traffic onto roads that people will discover “over time,” says Amorello.
Over the next six to eight weeks, additional lanes will open on the Zakim Bridge and inside the Dewey Square tunnel.
However, according to Salvucci, once those extra lanes open, traffic will improve — for a while. “It will work better, but that will disappear inside of a year, if it is not subsidized by aggressive public transit improvements,” he warns. First, the Sumner Tunnel will reclog, then the Ted Williams Tunnel.
So, you can depress the artery, but, without additional public transportation, you can’t reduce the traffic.
Now they tell us.